Friday, 20 December 2013

Apollo theatre roof collapse

London's West End is reeling after the sudden collapse of the ceiling in the Apollo theatre during a performance of 'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time'. The performance was nearly full with around 720 people in the 775 capacity theatre, and 76 people were injured, with seven of them seriously. Mercifully though, no-one was killed, and the London Fire Brigade  has stated that it was lucky more were not injured. The Guardian newspaper reports eye-witnesses hearing a bang and seeing a cloud of dust that some people initially thought was part of the performance.This quickly changed, as the seriousness of the situation became apparent, but the following quotes illustrate that people's behaviour remained orderly; "people realised it must be some sort of emergency and people started getting up... people didn't panic".  The sudden and unexpected nature of this incident means that it was a potentially distressing experience for those affected, but people still remained calm; "people were scared, but they weren't screaming". I also saw a tweet from a colleague at my University who was in the theatre, and she acknowledges the distress, but refutes the idea of 'panic'

Interviews with eye-witnesses by Channel 4 news also report that when a crack appeared in the ceiling, someone in the audience stood up and told everyone to get out, which people quickly did. So it seems that it was a remarkably efficient evacuation, with casualties occurring during the initial roof collapse, and no reports of injuries sustained while people exited the venue. People also tried to locate members of their own groups before they evacuated, meaning I very much doubt there was any kind of crazed 'stampede' to get out. The BBC also reports instances of people protecting more vulnerable family members-

"I tried to cover my daughter-in-law, who is pregnant, to protect her but some of the debris fell on her back"

These accounts are very much in line with the social attachment theory (Mawson, 2005; 2007), which argues that in emergencies people don't tend to 'panic', but seek out familiar attachment figures (e.g. friends or family), and tend to evacuate as groups. The idea that people will 'stampede' to save themselves is not supported by evidence. Work I have done with survivors of mass emergencies (Drury & Cocking, 2007; Drury et al. 2009) has supported social attachment theory. We also found that disasters can create a sense of shared identity, meaning that strangers can and do co-operate with each other in life-threatening situations. Finally, in a previous post I looked at coverage of a fire in a packed nightclub in Brazil, in January 2013, and argued that we should be careful not to rush to describe people's behaviour in such situations as 'panic', as it could deflect blame for possible negligence on the part of those responsible for the safe management of such events. 
The response by the emergency services to this event appears to have been exemplary, with a very quick response (I have seen reports that some arrived on scene within 3 minutes), and I wish a speedy recovery to all those injured. However, I also think questions need to be asked about the possible safety of London's theatres.  I was fortunate enough to see some plays and musicals in the West End as a child and have fond memories of being in the Apollo and other West End theatres. These venues are classic examples of the old style theatres that the West End is famous for, but some of the buildings are now quite old, and stricter safety checks may be necessary to prevent any future incidents. The safety of people attending such events  has to take priority over all else, and safe crowd management should never be compromised in the pursuit of maximising profits.  

Debris on seats


Chertkoff, J.M. & Kushigian, R.H. (1999). Don’t panic: The psychology of emergency egress and ingress. Westport, CT: Praeger,

Drury, J. and Cocking, C. (2007). The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice.

Drury, J Cocking, C & Reicher, S (2009) Everyone for themselves? A comparative study of crowd solidarity among emergency survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 487-506.

Mawson, A.R. (2005). Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threat and disaster. Psychiatry, 68, 95-113.

Mawson, A. (2007). Mass panic and social attachment: The dynamics of human behavior. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

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